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Poveglia: the “cursed” Venetian island between history and legend.

5 min read

If we think about the islands of the Venetian lagoon, immediately come to mind Burano, Murano, Torcello and maybe some other less known, such as the beautiful Sant’Erasmo, or the picturesque Pellestrina.
When most people begin planning a trip to that part of the world, in Venice area, images of romantic walkways and Renaissance art come to mind, and haunted islands generally don’t rank very high on anyone’s must-see list.
This is probably one the reason because few people know Poveglia: the island has been uninhabited for many years, and is also forbidden to tourists. Known as one of the most illegal places one could (but really shouldn’t) visit, the island is one of the favorite destination of another sort of visitors like ghost hunters and supernatural enthusiasts, but also urban explorers fascinated by forbidden places.

The small, infamous italian island once hosted thousands of refugee black plague victims, serving as a quarantine island for those who were even suspected of harboring the bacteria, and it seems the island remains one of the most haunted places in Italy. According to some rumors, everyone who has taken the chance of stepping foot on the island has left with absolutely no desire to ever return!

The Italian island of Poveglia has a history chock-full of tragic events going back thousands of years.
Already during the Roman Empire, the island was used to house victims of the plague in order to protect the rest of the country, forcing inflicted people to live and die in isolation. Then, during the medieval era, when the plague returned and killed off nearly two-thirds of Europe’s population, Poveglia was again called upon to take in the sick and dying.
Dead bodies quickly began to overcrowd the island and thousands were dumped into large, common graves and, in many cases, the bodies were burned. Some overly cautious Italian communities even got into the habit of shipping away anyone who showed the slightest signs of illness. Many of those people had not actually been infected with the plague at all, but were literally dragged to Poveglia and dumped atop piles of rotting corpses.
From the end of the 18th century until the middle of the 20th century the island became a place of quarantine for men and goods, and, once again, the last refuge for many plague patients, who in the previous centuries had been confined also to the islands of Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo. In the latter, the recently completed excavations have unearthed thousands of skeletons of plague victims buried in mass graves.
There are no data on the number of deaths lying in Poveglia, but its reputation as a “cursed” island has given rise to uncontrolled rumors: about 50% of its land mass would contain human skeletons.

Historically, and despite all stories, more or less true, Poveglia has always been, over the centuries, a landing place for people on the run: in the 6th century the inhabitants of the Venetian hinterland arrived, escaping from the destruction carried out by the Lombards; in the 9th century, 200 servants remained faithful to the Doge Pietro Tardonico, who had been assassinated. Then, at the end of 1300, the poor people had to take the opposite path: leaving the island, following the Chioggia war.
The island remained abandoned for many centuries, until it became a fortified outpost (rising from the south) to protect the lagoon, thanks to the construction of a small octagonal fortress, known as the “Ottagono di Poveglia”, Poveglia Octagon.
In 1782 the island came under the control of the Magistrate of Health, which made it a place of quarantine, however, in the last years of the ‘700 there were confined the crews of two ships on which the plague had broken out. The function of lazaret became permanent, and lasted until 1814.

Probably, because of the macabre function of a place where people were just waiting to die, many legends were born on Poveglia, fueled also by incursions of ghost hunters coming from overseas, expecially from USA. To increase the reputation of a “cursed” island there is the suspicion, not confirmed, that the structure used to host convalescent elderly people, built in 1922, was actually used as an asylum.
The alleged arrival of droves of mentally disturbed patients to the island only served to enrich the legend of it being a place to avoid and it is rumored that the isolation and privacy offered by the island also allowed for disreputable scientists and doctors to do as they pleased to their patients.
Reports of wide spread abuse and heinous experiments began to float back to the mainland, bringing with them the screams of the tortured souls trapped there.

It seems that the poor patients were persecuted not only by the ghosts of the plague victims, but also by a sadistic lobotomizer. He believed that they were a great way to treat and cure mental illness, so he performed lobotomies on numerous patients, usually against their will, using hammers, chisels, and drills with no anesthesia or concern for sanitation.
However, it seems he paid for his cruelties, because he was driven to suicide by those same ghosts that so frightened his patients.
According to the story, the doctor began to suffer his own mental torture and was pursued by the island’s multitude of ghosts. Eventually, he lost his mind and climbed to the top of the bell tower and flung himself to his death below, even if there are different versions of his death. Some say he may have actually been pushed, either by an angry island spirit or by some of his furious patients. Supposedly a nurse witnessed his fall, claiming that he initially survived, but that a ghostly mist overcame his body and choked him to death.
The health facility was closed in 1968, and since then Poveglia has been inhabited only by its ghosts, which perhaps are simply called decay and abandonment.

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